Rick French
Rick French

Imagine a broadcast landscape where local television and radio studios do not exist; where real time local news is nonexistent. In this world, all “local” news content is managed and produced out of a centralized operation hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away. The reality of that scenario is fast approaching.

On October 24, the FCC will review a draft order that would change a nearly 80-year-old rule. The order will:

1) Get rid of the requirement that a television or radio broadcast station utilize a main studio in close proximity to its city of license.

2) Eliminate the requirement that stations have staff members available at that local studio.

If passed, this order would lay the groundwork for large TV and radio conglomerates to get rid of their local news presence in our communities. 

The FCC states, “Eliminating the main studio rule will produce substantial benefits. Broadcasters will be able to redirect the significant costs associated with complying the main studio rule to programming, equipment upgrades, newsgathering and other services to the benefit of consumers. Repealing the rule will also encourage the launch of new broadcast stations in small towns and rural areas and help prevent existing stations in those areas from going dark.” Huh?

We have seen a dramatic shift in technology over the past 20 years. Newsgathering and corporate consolidations of newspapers, television and radio stations happen daily. While delivery of information is still swift and continuous, we need on-the-ground, well-connected journalists now more than ever to investigate malfeasance and hold the powerful accountable.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016 five companies (Sinclair, Gray, Nextstar, Tegna and Tribune) owned 37 percent of all full-power local television stations in this country. That consolidation has stretched local news to the limit but it hasn’t yet undermined the determination of local news affiliates to produce stellar coverage and content. This FCC order is likely to accelerate layoffs in local television and radio newsrooms across the nation – stretching them to the breaking point.

The importance of local news will take a back seat to the bottom line of these large media companies. With no incentive to keep operations local, program directors and assignment editors will have a difficult time covering breaking news in our communities, instead having to rely on a stable of freelancers as their eyes and ears locally. And the public relations profession, which relies on well-versed local journalists to help tell our stories, will in turn suffer.

This is an issue I encourage everyone in the PR profession to keep a close eye over the next few months. We are all better served with engaged and dependable news teams in in our markets.

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Rick French is chairman/CEO of French/West/Vaughan.